In many schools and organizations, the term ‘learning disability’ has been replaced with ‘learning difference.’ Disability implies a person can’t learn—but that’s not true! One in five kids are diagnosed with learning differences and with the right accommodations, resources, and instruction, they thrive in the classroom and in life.
Students with learning differences are bright! They are creative and intuitive problem solvers who see, hear, and understand the world differently. Learning differences are not the result of low intelligence, poor vision, or hearing—they are brain-based and biological. Heredity can also play a role, as these challenges often run in families. While some people struggle in only one area, it’s common to struggle in more than one. These difficulties include: reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension, social competence, or motor coordination.
Dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language, leading to challenges in identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Individuals with dyslexia struggle with spelling and word recognition, as well as phonemic and phonological awareness. Due to poor word decoding skills, reading comprehension can also be impaired.
These difficulties have no connection to overall intelligence and are quite common. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia affects 20% of the population and represents 80–90% of all diagnosed learning disabilities. Early assessment, identification, and intervention are essential. When students with dyslexia are not identified and do not receive intervention, their reading difficulties continue into adulthood.
An educational evaluation is needed to determine if someone is dyslexic. The evaluation should compare expected and actual reading abilities while also noting specific strengths and weaknesses. All aspects of the reading process should be examined to determine where the breakdown is occurring. There are evidence-based interventions that help students with dyslexia find success:
Dysgraphia impairs an individual’s writing, including spelling accuracy, handwriting legibility, and the ability to express their thoughts on paper. Dysgraphia causes students to produce illegible or inconsistent writing, omit letters or words, fluctuate in their spacing between words and letters, use an awkward pencil grip/position, tire quickly while writing, and exhibit great difficulty while thinking and writing simultaneously.
Students with dysgraphia have writing skills that do not match their verbal skills, often causing parents and teachers to mistakenly think these students are lazy or lacking motivation. The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 7–15% of children have dysgraphia. Other learning differences like dyslexia and developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) can also cause a student to face challenges with certain aspects of writing, so an educational evaluation is important.
Evaluations should include assessment of a student’s writing ability, fine motor skills, and academic progress to get a sense of both writing quality and the physical act of writing itself. Remediation, accommodations, and modifications can help students with dysgraphia use their strengths to achieve writing success.
Some general strategies for inside and outside the classroom include:
Dyscalculia affects an individual’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based operations. Dyscalculia causes difficulty with number sense, quantitative reasoning, mental computation, measurements, pattern recognition, telling time, working with money, and fluency of mathematical facts and procedures.
Not all difficulties in math class are caused by dyscalculia. The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 5-7% of children have dyscalculia. Other learning differences like dyslexia, ADHD, and slow processing can also impact a student’s ability to successfully complete certain math problems.
An educational evaluation is needed to determine if someone has dyscalculia. The evaluation should compare expected and actual levels of skill and understanding, while also noting specific strengths and weaknesses. Intervention, accommodations, specialized instruction, and extra support can help students with dyscalculia learn how to approach mathematics by using strengths to their advantage.
Some basic strategies for students with Dyscalculia include:
Executive Function (EF) refers to the set of skills that enable people to engage in goal-directed action. EF deficits can impair an individual’s ability to plan, problem-solve, organize, and manage time. Students with EF deficits may struggle to focus, start/complete tasks, follow directions, prioritize, keep track of their materials, and manage their emotions.
An EF deficit is not a standalone diagnosis, but often occurs as a result of another disorder. EF deficits are common for students with learning differences. These abilities begin developing in early childhood and continue well into adulthood, but deficits are typically identified when the school environment becomes more challenging and the academic expectations increase (middle school). It’s important to help students build these skills early.
A comprehensive evaluation that assesses multiple areas of learning and thinking can identify EF deficits. Combining this information with input from parents and teachers helps determine where challenges lie and understand what strategies may be effective moving forward.
There are many approaches that may help improve EF deficits, including:
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with several areas of functioning or development. ADHD can be predominantly Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive, or a combination of both.
Typically, ADHD is diagnosed in childhood and occurs in approximately 7% of the population. ADHD is not diagnosed with a single test as there are several common conditions that overlap with the attention and behavior problems often seen in ADHD. These include: learning disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and sleep disturbances.
An ADHD evaluation needs to be comprehensive and include a thorough diagnostic and family history, an assessment of cognitive ability and academic skill development, standardized behavior rating forms completed by parents and teachers, and behavioral observations. Combining this information together will assess whether challenges with attention and behavior are best explained by ADHD or other conditions related to a child’s medical history, environment, or other common childhood conditions.
Research suggests that the most effective treatment for ADHD is a combination of:
In education, one size clearly does not fit all.
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